It was time to scatter Jerry’s ashes. A few of us gathered in the woods near his house that brisk January 1st morning of 1995. His ashes were placed in a large glass punch-bowl perched on a small table on the wooden pier Jerry had built. It extended partway over his pond. Since none of us had ever scattered ashes before and couldn’t contemplate our reaction to handling the remains of our close friend, a man who died way too young, we allowed for each of us deciding at the moment whether or not to participate in the ritual.
Flute in hand, Carol moved down the hill to stand in an open area near the pier. The waves of mist and fog made it hard for us to discern her, but we were able to catch the plaintive notes as they drifted up through the Arkansas woods Jerry so loved. This was his wish–to be scattered on his pond where he always swam in the hot summers, where he sat to meditate and contemplate. The stillness and beauty of the pond and the surrounding woods were a balm to his spirit in an increasingly difficult world. He had been diagnosed with cancer on his thigh; shortly thereafter his leg was amputated. It never healed properly as the cancer continued its relentless spread. How could someone who was so dedicated to living off the land and being independent, how could he deal with this huge impediment to his way of life?
Those of us gathered had tried to help Jerry on his journey and be supportive as he attempted to continue to live his chosen way of life. Preparing food, cleaning his home, a cabin he lovingly built by hand, stacking firewood and hauling water from the pond for washing dishes, all these things were but temporary stops on his way to finally needing constant care in someone else’s home.
And now we gathered to say goodbye, Jerry back on his land once more. The seven of us strolled through the fog, following the notes of the flute down to the pond. We each shared what we brought to read or say in his honor.
Then a pause… a long pause. Would anyone be able to scatter Jerry’s ashes? I kept thinking I couldn’t possibly put my hands into his ashes… I had just seen him alive. How could I do such a thing? This was Jerry, his actual body, burned down to dust and ashes. How could I touch those burnt remains? Yes, I knew there was a Styrofoam cup on the table we could use, but even so, how could I dig into his ashes and let them sink into the water? I knew very well the real Jerry was fine and beyond all this, but still, how could I honor his remains by scattering them? Could I, even knowing it was what he desired?
As I pondered my own images, my preconceived notions, I saw Carol walk to the table on the pier. She scooped up some ashes in the cup and gently spread them on the water. Another of his friends then did the same. And another.
Finally I was ready – sort of. It was time for me to approach the table, but I still didn’t know what I would do or if I could do anything. The crisp winter air tinged with woodstove smoke from other cabins sprinkled throughout the valley invigorated me to at least resolutely head onto the pier as it gently rolled under the weight of my steps. The wood creaked a bit as I crept forward and then I stood before what remained of Jerry. I took a deep breath in preparation…Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
I plunged my bare hands into the ashes, letting myself relax into what felt right at that moment. No barriers of gloves of Styrofoam to the experience. And was I surprised! The ashes were not all ashes. There were chunks of bone throughout. Ohhh, Jerry’s bones! A moment of reeling with the knowledge; then came an infusion of energy. I grabbed two large handfuls, flung my hands up and out, releasing ashes, dust and bone high into the sky accompanied with the cry, “Go, Jerry! Go!” He was free and flying to the heavens.
The breeze seemed to reflect my exhilaration and joy as it caught the ashes and bone bits, carrying them further into the heavens before returning them to the pond Jerry loved. I knew then that the phrase “ashes and dust” was a fallacy, a euphemism for ashes and bone fragments. But I also knew a deeper truth. Jerry was not those ashes and bones; he was spirit and joy!
(published in Sage of Consciousness)